Over the more than 20 years that trainer and assessor Kelly Bracewell has worked in health and safety, one major factor continues to cause issues with company health and safety legislation – actual comprehension among workers.

As with most manufacturing companies including in the food and beverage industry, it’s often the factory floor workers who are most at risk. These are the people working on the floor face-to-face with machines. These are also the people, especially in a multicultural society like New Zealand, who are often from countries where English is not their first language.

As an occupational health and safety trainer and assessor, Bracewell says poor literacy skills and learning difficulties among workers is increasingly affecting workers understanding of legislation purely because of its written nature.

“One thing I’m picking up in the classroom – and I’ve been a trainer for a very long time in every industry developing management systems, auditing companies, and running health and safety programmes – is that people don’t know how the people they are training, learn,” he says.

In fact, he says, two recent high profile factory incidents involved overseas workers.

“If I’ve got a health and safety document and a SOP (Safe Operating Procedure) in English and all my safety signs are in English and I’ve got an overseas worker where English is maybe their third language, they are not going to understand that information.

“And if I’ve got an induction delivered in English and a health and safety system all written in English for management to understand rather than the work force, then there’s going to be a breakdown in comprehension.

“They might be asked ‘do you understand what I’m talking about?’, and they’ll say yes because they want to do the work, but they’ll go out and they are guessing.”

Another issue Bracewell sees time and time again is management and company directors, who have a moral obligation to keep their workers safe, absent from the training classroom which he says is another cause for a disconnect between employer and employee.

“If you’re the one developing the procedures and signing everything off, then the classroom is a good neutral zone to really understand and connect with the workforce and the coal face.”

At the end of the day Bracewell says simply just attending an induction doesn’t mean anything if the attendee doesn’t understand the content, which is why it’s important for employees to know how workers learn.

“In the classroom I’m finding that we have poor literacy across the board. People who can’t read and write. We’ve got dyslexia and learning difficulties and barriers.

“If I ask all my students from all different industries and age groups to give me their definition of a hazard and they kind of give one but it’s not exactly what a hazard is, then that means they are all going back to their workforce with a different understanding of what a hazard is, but they have to all perform a hazard ID.

“Attending an induction doesn’t mean squat until you understand and can you demonstrate what you have learnt. We have people coming through with learning difficulties, language issues, cultural and societal barriers which prevent their ability to understand information.”

Research has shown that more than one million New Zealand adults have less than optimal literacy and numeracy skills for a knowledge-based economy and this has been identified as contributing to a relatively low productivity.

The Skills Highway workplace literacy and numeracy programme is funded by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and is just one part of the Government’s efforts to improve New Zealand’s adult literacy and numeracy.

One company that Bracewell believes has got it right, and is utilising the Skills Highway programme, is Onyx Capital Limited in Whangarei.

The family-owned horticultural investment company is committed to upskilling their employees by offering the Skills Highway Literacy Programme to make them feel valued and ensure they understand health and safety regulations.

Onyx HR manager, Michelle Clayton, says there is a misconception that orchard work is unskilled, but it includes computerised growing and highly technical machinery use, through to managing Health and Safety and food safety in a modern packhouse.

The company encourages employees to undergo extra training by paying them to attend courses and providing dinner.

“For orchard workers on a management trajectory, it can be challenging to change from working in a team one day to the next day leading a team as their supervisor or QC,” she says.

“The employees value the culture of the workplace – and understand being a good productive worker is so much more than just having great skills. It’s being a participating member of the team.”